1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Archon
ARCHON (ἄρχων, ruler), the title of the highest magistrate in many ancient Greek states. It is only in Athens that we have any detailed knowledge of the office, and even in this one case the evidence presents problems of the first importance which are incapable of decisive solution. There is no doubt that the archons represented the ancient kings, whose absolutism, under conditions which we can only infer, yielded in process of time to the power of the noble families, supported no doubt by the fighting force of the state. As to the process by which this change was effected there are two accounts. Traditionally, the monarchy after the death of Codrus (? 1068 B.C.) gave place to the life archon whose tenure of office was limited afterwards to ten years and then to one year. Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens (q.v.) speaks of five stages: (1) the institution of the polemarch who took over the military duties of the king; (2) the institution of the archon to relieve the king of his civil duties; (3) the tenure of office was reduced to ten years (? 752 B.C.); (4) the office was taken from the “royal” clan and thrown open to all Eupatridae (? 712 B.C.); (5) office was made annual, and to the existing three offices were added the six thesmothetae whose duty it was to record judicial decisions. The value of this latter account is, of course, debatable, but it is at least compatible with the general trend of development from hereditary absolutism, civil, military and religious, in the person of the “king,” to a constitutional oligarchy. The change was clearly effected by the devolution of the military and civil powers of the king to the polemarch and the archon, while the archon basileus (or king) retained control of state religion. It is equally clear that owing to the predominating importance of civil affairs, the archon became the chief state official and gave his name to the year (hence archon eponymus). It should be noticed that the analogy which has often been suggested between the early history of the archonship at Athens, and such cases as the mayors of the palace in French history, or the tycoon (shogun) and mikado in Japanese history, is misleading. In these cases it is the old royal house that retains the royal title and the semblance of power, while the real authority passes into new hands. In Athens, the new civil office is vested in the old royal family, while the old title along with its religious functions is transferred. The early history of the thesmothetae is not clear, but this much is certain that there is no adequate reason for supposing, as many historians do, that in early times, they, with the three chief archons, constituted a collective or collegiate magistracy. It is true Thucydides (i. 126) states that, in the time of the Cylonian conspiracy (? 632 B.C.), “the nine archons were (i.e. collectively) the principal officials,” but at the same time the responsibility for the action then taken attached to the Alcmaeonidae alone, because one of their number, Megacles, was at that time the archon (i.e. responsibility was personal, not collective). Again, the Constitution of Athens says that down to Solon’s time the archons had no official residence, but that afterwards they used the Thesmotheteion. It is a reasonable inference from this statement that the thesmothetae had previously sat together apart from the superior archons and that it was only after Solon that collegiate responsibility began.
Evolution of the Office.—The history of the democratization of the archonship is beset with equal difficulty. In the early days,
the importance of the office (confined as it was to the highest class) must have been immense; there was no audit, no written law, no executive council. The popular assembly was ill-organized and probably summoned by the archons themselves. The only control came from the Areopagus which elected them and would generally be favourably disposed, and from the fact that the military and civil powers were not vested in the same hands. Although the institution of the popular courts by Solon had within it the germ of democratic supremacy, it is clear that the immediate result was small; thus, in the next decade anarchia was continuous and Damasias held the archonship for more than two years in defiance of the new constitution; the prolonged dissension in this matter shows that the office of archon still retained its supreme importance. Gradually, however, the archonship lost its power, especially in judicial matters, until it retained merely the right of holding the preliminary investigation and the formal direction of the popular courts. Its administrative powers, save those wielded by the polemarch (see below and cf. Strategus), dwindled away into matters of routine. We know that Peisistratus ruled by controlling the archonship, which was always held by members of his family, and the archonship of Isagoras was clearly an important party victory; we know further the names of three important men who held the office between Cleisthenes’ reform and the Persian War (Hipparchus, Themistocles (q.v.), Aristides) from which we infer that the office was still the prize of party competition. On the other hand, after 487 B.C. the list of archons contains no name of importance. Presumably this is due to the growing importance of the Strategus and to the institution of sortition (see below), which, whether as cause or effect, is presumably by the 5th century indicative of diminished importance. There can, on these assumptions, be no doubt that, from the early years of the 5th century B.C., the archonship was of practically no importance. Furthermore we find that (probably after the Persian War) the office is thrown open to the second class, and finally in 457 B.C. we meet an archon, Mnesitheides, of the third, or Zeugite, class. Plutarch (Aristides, 22) says that after the great struggle of the Persian War Aristides threw open the office to all the citizens. But in fact the members of the fourth class were not formally admitted even in the 4th century (though by a fiction they were allowed to pose for the time as Zeugites). Furthermore it is not till 457 that even a Zeugite archon is known, according to the Constitution of Athens (c. 26), which dates the change as five years after the death of Ephialtes and does not connect it with Aristides.
Sortition.—The next question constitutes perhaps the most important problem in Greek political development. At what date was election by lot, or sortition, introduced for the archonship? From the Constitution of Athens (c. 22) we gather that from the fall of the Tyranny to 487 B.C. the archons were αἱρετοί, not κληρωτοί (i.e. chosen by vote, not by lot), and that in 487, limited sortition was introduced, whereby fifty candidates were elected by each tribe, and from these the archons and their “secretary” were chosen by lot. But against this must be set the statement by the same authority that this double method was part of the Solonian reform. The solution of the dilemma is a matter of inference. Three indications favour the former view: (1) the “anarchia” which occurred so often between Solon and Peisistratus shows that the office was at that time a question of party (i.e. elective); (2) the statement that Solon invented sortition for the office is put as the basis of a comparison (ὄθεν, σημεῖον) and, therefore, may fairly be regarded as a hypothesis; (3) there is no indication that the change made in 487 B.C. was a return to an obsolete method, and on the same argument it is odd that Solon’s alleged system should not have been revived at the end of the Tyranny. On the other hand Herodotus (vi. 109) states that, in 490, before the battle of Marathon, the polemarch was chosen by lot. If this be true, it follows that the office of polemarch must have lost its military importance, which was not the case, inasmuch as the polemarch at Marathon gave the casting vote in favour of immediate battle. Whether, therefore, Solon or Aristides was the first to introduce sortition, it is perfectly clear that the lot was not used between the Tyranny and 487 B.C. and that after 487 the lot was always used (see J. E. Sandys, Constitution of Athens c. 8 note 1, c. 22 § 5, note); in fact, at a date not known the mixed system of Aristides gave place to double sortition, in which the first nomination also was by lot. To enter here into the theory of the lot is impossible. It should, however, be observed that in the somewhat material atmosphere of constitutional Athens the religious significance of the lot had vanished; no important office in the 5th and 4th centuries was entrusted to its decision. The real effect of sortition was to equalize the chances of rich and poor without civil strife. Now it is perfectly clear that it could not have been this object which impelled Solon to introduce sortition; for in his time the archonship was not open to the lower classes, and, therefore, election was more democratic than sortition, whereas later the case was reversed. It should further be mentioned that, before the discovery of the Aristotelian Constitution in 1891, Grote, C. F. Hermann, Busolt and others had maintained that the lot was not used in Athens before the time of Cleisthenes; and in spite of the treatise, it must be admitted that there is no satisfactory evidence, historical or inferential, that their theory was unsound.
Qualifications and Functions.—It remains to give a brief analysis of the qualifications and functions of the archons after the year 487 B.C. After election (in the time of Aristotle in the month Anthesterion; in the 3rd century in Munychion) a short time had to elapse before entering on office to allow of the dokimasia (examination of fitness). In this the whole life of the nominee was investigated, and each had to prove that he was physically without flaw. Failure to pass the scrutiny involved a certain loss of civic rights (e.g. that of addressing the people). The successful candidate had to take an oath to the people (that he would not take bribes, &c.) and to go through certain preliminary rites. Any citizen could bring an impeachment (eisangelia) against the archons. Any delinquency involved a trial before the Heliaea. Finally an examination took place at the end of the year of office, when each archon had to answer for his actions with person and possessions; till then he could not leave the country, be adopted into another family, dispose of his property, nor receive any “crown of honour.” A similar investigation took place with regard to the assessors (paredri) whom the three senior archons chose to assist them. The archons at the end of their year of office (some say on entering upon office) became members of the Areopagus, which was, therefore, a body composed of ex-archons of tried probity and wisdom. The archons as a body retained some duties such as the appointment of jurymen, the sortition of the athlothetae, &c. (but see Gilbert’s Antiquities, Eng. trans., p. 251, n. 1). On entering upon office the archon (archon eponymus) made proclamation by his herald that he would not interfere with private property. His official residence was the Prytaneum where he presided over all questions of family, e.g. the protection of parents against children and vice versa, protection of widows, wardship of heiresses and orphans, divorce; in religious matters he superintended the Dionysia, the Thargelia, the processions in honour of Zeus the Saviour and Asclepius. The archon basileus superintended the holy places, the mysteries, the Lampadephoria (Torch race), &c., questions of national religion and certain cases of bloodguiltiness. His official residence was the Stoa Basileios, and his wife, as officially representing the wife of Dionysus, was called Basilinna. The polemarch, who was at any rate titular commander down to about 487 B.C. (see above; and Herod, vi. 109, ἑνδέκατος ψηφιδοφόρος), became in the 5th century a sort of consul who watched over the rights of resident aliens (metoeci) in their family and legal affairs. He offered sacrifices to Artemis Agrotera and Enyalios, superintended epitaphia and arranged for the annual honours paid to the tyrannicides. His official residence was the Epilyceum (formerly called the Polemarcheion).